Elbow to sideline Johnson 8-10 weeks
Righty setup man to begin rehab, but could need surgery
BALTIMORE -- Orioles setup man Jim Johnson will be sidelined at least 8-10 weeks with a low-grade tear in his right elbow, a prognosis delivered by Dr. James Andrews on Thursday morning in Pensacola, Fla.
President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said in a text message to MLB.com that he couldn't confirm Johnson's results with Andrews.
Johnson said the second opinion is basically the same as his first opinion with team orthopedist Dr. John Wilckens except more rest, which is why his original timetable of 4-6 weeks has been pushed back. Wilckens initially diagnosed Johnson with a strained ulnar collateral ligament, and he said there was a possibility of a small tear, which is why Johnson chose to seek a second opinion in Andrews. In a phone interview with MLB.com, Johnson said the low-grade strain is more of an overstretched ligament than a full-fledged tear, and he's hopeful he will be able to avoid surgery.
The plan is for Johnson to begin a rehabilitation program at the team's Spring Training complex in Sarasota, Fla., and if things don't improve after a month he will visit other options, which would likely be season-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Johnson suffered the injury on the first pitch thrown to Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena in the Orioles' season-opener April 6. He tossed a perfect eighth inning in that contest, but told manager Dave Trembley he was unavailable for the following game due to some inflammation in his right elbow. It was the only time Johnson would be unavailable as the right-hander quietly battled discomfort for most of the season's first month.
"That's the crazy thing, I was feeling great out of Spring Training," Johnson said. "And to get hurt like five pitches into the season, there's really nothing you can do about it."
While pitching with elbow discomfort certainly affected his numbers -- Johnson went 1-1 with a 6.52 ERA -- he doesn't think it made the injury any worse.
"Obviously I wasn't helping the team [pitching hurt]," Johnson said, "but the impression I got [from the doctors] was I just pushed back my timetable and didn't do any more damage."
In the wake of an injury to closer Mike Gonzalez (left shoulder strain), Johnson was relied on heavily to shore up the back innings of the Orioles' bullpen. But he proved ineffective, allowing 15 hits and four walks over just 9 2/3 innings before being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on May 1.
"I wasn't able to finish off my pitches," said Johnson, who was able to conceal his injury mostly because his velocity readings stayed the same. "Everybody thinks when you are hurt your velocity is what suffers, but I wasn't able to finish off my pitches, and when you can't finish off your pitches you can't get people out."
When the Orioles optioned him to Norfolk to get him back on track, pitching coach Rick Kranitz noted that Johnson tried to use too many types of pitches and got away from his game plan. The team, unaware of Johnson's injury at the time, made its intentions clear: Johnson needed to go to the Minors and get back to where he was.
On Sunday, both MacPhail and manager Dave Trembley said they had no prior knowledge of Johnson's injury. While appreciative of Johnson's desire to stick it out and try to help step up for an injury-laden Orioles bullpen, Trembley wasn't convinced it was the proper course of action.
"You are finding out now about Johnson [and his injury], you find out about these guys, they will bite the bullet," Trembley said prior to Thursday's 6-5 Orioles win. "But they bite the bullet to an extent that sometimes it detrimental to their progress and the success of the team. Because they want to do well, and they want to help, and they want to compete. That's a great quality, but I think some of them are learning -- just step forward. No one's going to chastise you if you are hurt.
"No one is ever going to question the integrity of a [Brad] Bergesen or a Johnson or some of these other guys when they're saying, 'Hey I'm not feeling real good.'"
Johnson made one appearance in relief for Triple-A Norfolk, tossing a scoreless inning on May 4, before deciding to get his elbow checked out.
"I know for me to get back to the person [the Orioles] wanted me to be, I couldn't pitch through this anymore," said Johnson, who was placed on Norfolk's seven-day disabled list prior to Saturday's game.
"I felt like [the injury] was in the way, and I needed to get back to the person and the pitcher I was and I know I can be."
One of the Orioles' most reliable relief options last year, Johnson appeared in a team-high 64 games, pitching to a 4.11 ERA over a career-high 70 innings. After becoming the team's primary closer on July 31, Johnson went 8-for-11 in save opportunities and was expected to provide a strong 1-2 punch with Gonzalez.
Instead, he will join Gonzalez -- who is already on a throwing program and is targeting an early June return -- under less-than-ideal circumstances in Sarasota.
"If there was an easier way, I'd take it," Johnson said. "Just got to rest it up and do what I can do to get back on the field healthy."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.